Saturday, October 25, 2014

Scottsdale Charros

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The Scottsdale Charros have grown beyond promoting baseball to include philanthropy. Although they still do an annual trail ride, the group is hardly fading into the sunset.


Professional baseball had already been causing spring fever in Scottsdale for several years by the early 1960s. The Baltimore Orioles moved their spring training home there from Yuma in 1956, bringing along newcomer and future hall of famer Brooks Robinson. The Boston Red Sox took their place three years later after the Orioles left.

That era of spring training would be almost unrecognizable from what it has become today. Scottsdale Stadium was made of wood and painted by hand. And there were only a few major league teams training in Arizona, so they occasionally played semi-pro clubs for the extra practice.


But in 1961, a loose-knit group of local businessmen recognized the potential spring training had to become an economic super engine, the kind of thing that could lure well-heeled tourists from back East to spend a few weeks and a fair amount of cash amid the company of famous ballplayers in a burgeoning western town. That April, nine of those businessmen gathered in a conference room at the Hotel Valley Ho and decided to start an organization to promote spring training and other events in Scottsdale.

That organization soon became known as the Charros, from the Spanish word meaning horsemen. Fifty years later, it stands as one of the most influential organizations in the city, with a roster over the years that includes many of Scottsdale’s civic and business leaders.

“We only had nine or 10 at that first meeting, but then we began to take on members quickly,” recalls Dick Houseworth, the sole living founder of the organization, which is celebrating its anniversary with events throughout this year. The group now has about 40 active members and some 150 others who, like Houseworth, are considered members for life.

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Houseworth is one of the group’s bigger names. He served as director of the U.S. Import-Export Bank under President Ronald Reagan and later as the alternate U.S. executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank under President George H.W. Bush. But before that he lived in Scottsdale, working for the Bank of Douglas.

At 83, Houseworth has fond memories of his fellow founders. “They were all very interested in what was going on in Scottsdale and very sincere about it,” he says. Among them was Pat O’Day, who ran a printing company and whom Houseworth describes as “one of the sharpest individuals you could imagine.” There was Don Chambers, whose family owned a moving and storage company, and Fred Stresen-Reuter, who owned a small resort. Locals Carl Plumb, Dave Hallstrom, Rob McCampbell, Paul Engebretsen and Carl Roe rounded out the original nine. Houseworth was elected the group’s first treasurer.

The group modeled itself after the Thunderbirds, a similar organization in Phoenix. Don Chambers’ father, Whitey, was a member of that group and helped guide the Charros through their first few meetings.

Surprisingly, Houseworth says he wasn’t much of a baseball fan. “There was lots of tourists coming to Arizona and if we could attract them to Scottsdale for various activities, one of which was spring training, it produced a lot of revenue for the merchants,” he says. “So I kind of looked at it as a tremendous asset to the City of Scottsdale.”

In 1962, Houseworth says, the Charros embarked on a horseback ride that he still remembers warmly today. Setting out from what is now Old Town, the riders cut across a long, undeveloped patch of desert and made their way to Scottsdale Country Club, where the men’s wives met them. They had a cookout and stayed overnight. The next day, the men bid their wives goodbye and rode up over the McDowell Mountains and down to the Verde River. They camped for three nights beside the river before returning to town.

Today, that horseback ride is an annual Charros tradition. They even invite select members of the community along, sometimes to get to know them better and other times to consider them for possible membership. Just as it was 50 years ago, members are exclusively men. But as the organization has grown over the years, it has hired a few women on its staff, including its first-ever female executive director, Margaret Leichtfuss, who was hired this summer.

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The Charros today raise money for charity and give scholarships and awards to local students and teachers. Spring training, appropriately, is their fundraising machine, with the organization selling advertising and running a VIP section at the stadium to bring in money for their causes. Active members each spend an average of 250 hours a year performing services to the community, Charros Board Chairman Mark Stanton says.

“We don’t put any dollar amount on individuals. There’s no quotas or anything,” Stanton says. This means some members will help the group raise cash while others will donate their expertise in various trades or help with community events. “All of the members contribute at different levels and different skills.”

For some members like Jeff Meyer, who has been with the Charros for 15 years, being part of the springtime baseball experience might have been reason enough to join. A fan of the game, Meyer also sits on the boards of the Cactus League and the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority. But he says the charitable work is what really makes the Charros special.

Meyer recalled a time this spring when he was at an event helping special-needs children play baseball, held at a specially designed field the Charros helped build. He says baseball legend and Scottsdale resident Harmon Killebrew dropped by unannounced, surprising the kids and signing autographs. It was about a week before Killebrew died. “It’s really grabbed a lot of hearts in the Charros to be able to promote such an endeavor,” Meyer says. “That’s what makes it rewarding.”

As part of the yearlong celebration for the Charros’ anniversary, the group has plans this fall to recreate the original horseback ride, starting in downtown Scottsdale and making its way through the city’s now-sprawling neighborhoods, over the McDowell Mountains and down to the Verde River. Stanton says many longtime members have RSVP’d for the event. The Charros have also hired local historian Joan Fudala to compile old photographs and stories of the organization’s history to turn into a book expected to be available to members in December.

Stanton says the Charros hope to carry on the legacy of the founders while finding new ways to promote Scottsdale and serve the community. For example, he says the group is looking at new technologies like mobile apps or text messaging to raise money.

“We’re a much more evolved group than those initial founders that took that ride into the McDowell Mountains,” Stanton says. “But we still adhere to their sense of camaraderie and commitment to the community.”

 

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